This new start-up is extracting biomaterials from bugs

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  • A Singaporean start-up has set up the country’s first urban insect farm, producing biomaterials for pharmaceuticals and electronics.
  • Chitosan, melanin, and probiotics are all extracted from the larvae.
  • Melanin conducts electricity and can be used in semiconductors, supercapacitors or batteries.
  • Chitosan has anti-inflammatory properties and is useful in the manufacture of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
  • The world market is valued at $ 7 billion and is expected to grow strongly.

In a quiet residential area of ​​Singapore, trays of writhing black soldier fly larvae eat their way through hundreds of kilograms of food waste every day.

The protein-rich maggots can be sold for pet food or fertilizer, but at Insectta – a startup that says it will be Singapore’s first urban insect farm – they’re bred to extract biomaterials that can be used in pharmaceuticals and electronics.

“These black soldier flies enable us to turn this food waste that is a product of negative value into a product of positive value,” said Chua Kai-Ning, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Insectta.

Black soldier flies are known for their ability to consume any type of food waste and for their speed and efficiency in converting that waste into body mass, Chua said. The hundreds of millions of larvae on the farm eat four times their body weight in food waste every day.

Working with the Singapore Science, Technology and Research Agency, Insectta technology uses a proprietary and environmentally friendly process to extract lucrative substances such as chitosan, melanin and probiotics from the larvae.

Insect extract chitosan, melanin and probiotics from the larvae.

Image: REUTERS / Caroline Chia

The substances, which are worth a few hundred dollars per gram, are sold to other companies.

Melanin conducts electricity and can be used in semiconductors, supercapacitors, or batteries, while chitosan has anti-inflammatory properties and is useful in the manufacture of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

“Traditionally, melanin was only extracted from squid ink,” said Insectta Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Phua Jun Wei, adding that chitosan typically requires large amounts of caustic and environmentally harmful solvents to make it.

With a global market value of $ 7 billion and expected strong growth, Insectta wanted to expand industrial applications for its high-quality chitosan to include wound healing, filaments for organic 3D printing, and drug delivery devices.